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Time to pass the Freedom of Information Act

Andrew Brathwaite

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The Leader of the Opposition recently published a statement calling for greater transparency with respect to the Four Seasons project, following the publication of selected information by the project’s chairman. We should all welcome greater transparency and accountability in relation to the spending of public funds, subject to the need for confidentiality of commercially sensitive information.
In fact, the level of disclosure demanded by the Leader of the Opposition approaches levels seldom seen for Central Government and Government-owned enterprises, but would certainly be very welcome.  
It might therefore be an opportune time to look past the specific matter of the investment in Four Seasons and encourage public debate on the general question of transparency and accountability.
In recent times Parliament has seen bills or resolutions to guarantee borrowings of $160 million by the Barbados National Oil Company Limited, US$60 million by Clearwater Bay Limited, and $40.6 million by the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation. Were financial analyses laid in Parliament to support these guarantees, and if not, on what basis were the guarantees approved?
Presumably when these matters are discussed in Cabinet there are papers which set out the full justification – why couldn’t most or all of this information be provided to parliamentarians and the general public?
In addition we have been told of plans to have the National Insurance Fund finance operations of the Barbados Tourism Authority, Transport Board, University of the West Indies, and Needham’s Points Holdings.
What relevant financial or other information has been made public in connection with this? What about disclosure of information related to the general operations and special projects of the National Housing Corporation, Barbados Water Authority and other Government statutory bodies, some of which are years behind in completing their annual financial statements?
It would certainly contribute to greater transparency and accountability if meetings of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) were open to the general public and its annual reports published promptly along with minutes of its meetings.
There is a great deal of work to be done by the committee to follow up on mismanagement and potential theft of public funds as reported annually by the Auditor General and the public has a right to be kept apprised of these efforts.
Matters that are reported have to be addressed at a strategic level and not simply piecemeal – there is simply too much fiscal irresponsibility and too little accountability in the public sector – and we need to hear the recommendations of the PAC.
But it is not only financial information to which public access is required. Isn’t it time that the laws of Barbados were available for download free of charge? Shouldn’t guidance notes and explanatory notes be published for all legislation? When will the public have access to the internal policy documents used by Government departments and public sector entities?
Transparency and accountability are not best served when public officials may cherry-pick which information they choose to disclose, and the timing of this disclosure.
The Freedom of Information Bill speaks to a constitutional right to information held by public authorities. Let us also pass the Freedom of Information Act and acknowledge the right of our citizens to access certain information.
• Andrew Brathwaite is president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Barbados.